Monday, April 30, 2012

OBU's Peers: What Schools Are in the Same Boat?

OBU's Peers Series:
Intro: Who's In the Same Boat?
OBU's Peers: Nondenominational Colleges?
OBU's Peers: Nearby Baptist Colleges (Ouachita and Southwest Baptist)?
OBU's Peers: Texas Baptist Colleges?
OBU's Peers: Union University?

When I first started the Save OBU blog, I knew we would have to carefully study many of the Baptist colleges that have struggled against fundamentalist encroachment in recent decades.  I immediately turned my attention to schools like Stetson and Furman, which broke ties with their state conventions in the aftermath of the Takeover.  But I soon discovered that we might actually learn more from schools that remained affiliated with state conventions, as OBU has.  Thus the case of William Jewell College, which remained affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention until 2003, was instructive (and hopeful).

We have seen that, while they devolve at varying speeds, SBC colleges have only moved in one direction since the Takeover -- and that is in the direction of doctrinal rigidity, ever more stringent control, and restricted academic freedom.  If anything, OBU has fared better than most in this regard, thanks in large part to the sensitive and strong leadership of President Bob Agee (1982-1998).

We know that OBU's situation is qualitatively different than insignificant, thoroughly fundamentalist schools like Parker-Brewton and Truett-McConnell.  And we concede that, while recent eventas at OBU are troubling, we are in much better shape than Shorter, which is facing outright war and destruction at the hands of its president, trustees, and the Georgia Baptist Convention.

All this brings up the question we will consider this week: What schools are in the same boat as OBU?  Where else is there comparable tension between outside forces insisting on "doctrinal accountability" and students/faculty whose experience depends on academic freedom and open inquiry?  How do our fellow travelers navigate the tension?  What can we learn from their experiences, and, conversely, what might they learn from ours?

OBU is never going to be Stetson or Furman.  It will always be more explicitly Christian.  Likewise, it will never be a large research university like Baylor or Wake Forest.  On the other hand, OBU will hopefully never be like the fundamentalist Bible academies that sadly make up most of Southern Baptist educational life these days.

So who are our peers?  This week we'll consider a number of possible candidates.  Unfortunately, I don't have time to research each of them as extensively as I did in the Downward Spiral series, which examined three Georgia Baptist Convention schools that seem to be in a race to the bottom in an effort to appease GBC fundamentalists.  But to the degree that we find common ground between OBU and this week's slate of schools, we will return to them again and again on the blog, continuing to learn as much as we can.

To give a sneak preview, here are a few of the options we'll consider:

  • Non-denominational Christian colleges
  • BGCT colleges
  • Nearby state convention-controlled colleges
  • Union University in Jackson, TN

As the week progresses, please share our movement with friends and colleagues at these other schools. I look forward to further narrowing our search for people who are fighting the same battle we are.  The goal is to share information, stories, and strategies so that academic freedom, open inquiry, and authentically Baptist Christian liberal arts education can once again flourish -- not only at OBU, but elsewhere as well.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

To All Who Say "It Can't Happen Here"

As regular readers know, earlier this month we profiled three Baptist colleges in Georgia in various stages of collapse at the hands of emboldened fundamentalists.  The case of Shorter University is the most tragic because, until the past decade, Shorter was, like OBU, a shining example of how to offer a distinctively Baptist, authentically Christian liberal arts education to bright and eager students.

We are concerned because Shorter is being absolutely destroyed in the most sudden and dramatic way possible.  Whereas at OBU, we have "only" seen two professors forced out since fundamentalists flexed their muscles, Shorter is actually going to lose at least two dozen professors and hundreds of students.  The precipitating event is a "Lifestyle Statement" that all Shorter staff must either sign or face termination.  While Georgia Baptist Convention fundamentalists are salivating at the prospect of remaking Shorter in their own narrow image, the fact is that entire departments are being decimated and Shorter's accreditation is in perilous danger.

We'll continue to study the long history of Shorter's takeover and demise, alert to any parallels with OBU's own unfortunate position vis-a-vis the BGCO.  But today, I want to focus on a single vignette that illustrates how easy it is for even one fundamentalist pastor to dramatically reshape a Baptist college's Board of Trustees.  The story comes from a former Shorter trustee, the Rev. Dr. Larry Burgess.  Save Our Shorter has printed his recollection in its entirety, so I encourage you to read it there.

The story is absolutely chilling, and I can't comment on every part of it in a single blog post.  A single Georgia Baptist minister, concerned that Shorter was too "moderate," requested a meeting with Shorter President Edward Schrader.
They shared a meal at a Cracker Barrel on I-75 on the north side of Atlanta. The pastor, quite prominent in the Georgia Baptist Convention, was very critical of Shorter. He said the whole religion faculty should be replaced. He criticized Shorter for being too liberal, too “Moderate.” He was quite confrontational and it was clear he intended to see radical changes made at Shorter.
If you don't believe there are BGCO pastors who would have said the same thing about OBU two years ago, you are badly mistaken.  Anyway, at the next Georgia Baptist Convention meeting, the norms for electing Shorter trustees were completely discarded.  Previously, the university had sent a list of suitable nominees to the convention, usually with about double the number of names as trustees to be elected.  The convention's Nominating Committee would whittle down the list and the convention would elect a group of trustees. This time, the Nominating Committee rejected all the names that Shorter provided, and forwarded to the convention a slate of replacement trustees, which the GBC subsequently elected.

Before long, the same pastor who ambushed Schrader was named Chairman of the GBC Nominations Committee.  Eventually, the GBC packed more fundamentalists and GBC loyalists onto the Shorter board.  The nasty battles that ensued wound up in the Georgia Supreme Court, where the convention won by one vote.  And now, as a consequence, the GBC is claiming its spoils.

What's most important to note about Larry Burgess's story is how naive he was.  I don't intend this as an insult or attack -- he admitted as much several times in his account.  But that very naivete -- that the convention has the university's best interests at heart -- ultimately allowed the fundamentalists to take over a once-proud institution.

In Oklahoma Baptist life, a lot of people like to say that moderates and fundamentalists have coexisted relatively peacefully.  But it's just not true.  From the early 1990s onward, there has been a deliberate, calculated attempt to marginalize moderates and reward the most strident Takeover henchmen and cheerleaders.  Sure, there have been a few prominent, popular BGCO pastors who are strong OBU supporters and who are relatively less fundamentalist.  But the writing is on the wall and has been for more than a decade.

Once President Whitlock (whether unwittingly or not, it's hard to say) turned his friend Stan Norman loose on Bison Hill, the BGCO fundamentalists began to see their dreams for OBU realized.  Unfortunately for them, Dr. Norman is being reigned in somewhat (for now).  If we remain vigilant, perhaps we can hold off the onslaught.  So far, he seems to be the only administrator with the appetite to force this battle.  Soon, he will have to undergo a performance evaluation that includes faculty input. Even if he survives in his position after that, every indication is that he will be sufficiently chastened.

But on the BGCO end, it's difficult to predict what will happen.  Of course, if OBU wasn't beholden to the BGCO, we wouldn't have to worry.  But if the Georgia experience is any indication, unethical and unprecedented actions by university administrators are just a small part of our concern.  Convention fundamentalists will use any means necessary to achieve their ends.  If even a small faction BGCO power brokers turned their sights on OBU, things could unravel quickly.

And if you actually believe that this scenario is unlikely, please take time to learn about any of the Baptist institutions (colleges and seminaries) that the fundamentalists have taken over in the past 20 years.  We are doing our best to tell their stories here at the Save OBU blog.  God bless people like Larry Burgess, who served because he was asked and because he loved Shorter.  But we need to get our heads out of the sand.  If OBU is taken over, it won't be because we were caught off guard.  And the opposition the takeover faction will face here will be the best-informed, loudest, and most passionate in history.  I have to say, I like our odds.  But to believe that OBU is not a takeover target is not only wishful thinking, it's flat-out ignorant.

Read former Shorter Trustee Larry Burgess's story.  And pray to God it doesn't repeat itself here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Houston Baptist University Considers Name Change

A lot of you may have already heard about this, but it was news to me when I read it two weeks ago.  Houston Baptist University, affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is considering a name change that could include dropping "Baptist" from the school's name.

Half a century after being founded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas as "a Christian college of the highest order," Houston Baptist University may soon erase the religious designation in its name. 
Saying that the Baptist tag creates a barrier for potential students, university officials are exploring a name change for the 51-year-old school - a prospect that concerns some alumni who fear HBU's religious identity would be de-emphasized.

Photo credit: Houston Chronicle

The tone of the article makes it seem like it's pretty much a done deal, pending action by the school's trustees next month.  The name change committee notes that both the geographical and denominational labels could be hindering HBU in its effort to become a national, comprehensive Christian liberal arts college.  Unlike OBU, where an overwhelming majority of students are Southern Baptist, only about a third of HBU students are.

The name change issue has come up before, but now, under President Robert Sloan's robust leadership, HBU seems ready to expand its profile beyond the sprawling Houston suburbs.  Having commissioned a study regarding the school's name recognition, HBU found that while most people know about the larger and more prominent Rice University and the University of Houston, relatively few people knew much about HBU.

While OBU draws extensively from Tulsa, OKC, smaller towns in Oklahoma, as well as the Dallas and Kansas City suburbs, HBU students are almost exclusively from three surrounding counties.  Proponents argue that a name change could help expand the school's geographical reach.

As for the "Baptist" part, we already know the name carries some baggage.  While we here at Save OBU are exceedingly proud of Baptists' rightful heritage, even the SBC itself acknowledges that the term connotes intolerance, anti-intellectualism, and even a racist past.  One progressive and brilliant thing HBU has done is allow a few non-Baptists Christians to serve on its Board of Trustees.  In fact, HBU is the first BGCT school to make this move.  Since some measure of theological diversity is actually tolerated in the BGCT (unlike in the uniformly conservative BGCO, where moderates are unwelcome and marginalized), there is little fear in sharing university governance with Christians from other denominational families in recognition of the need to attract students and faculty who may not be Southern Baptists.

Naturally, there are some who fear that taking the "Baptist" name away will invariably dilute the school's religious character.  Name change proponents dispute this charge, pointing out that the school's core mission will not change and that one of the proposed new names is "Morris Christian University" (in honor of founding father and major donor Stewart Morris).

At the moment, OBU clearly has much bigger problems on its plate than whether or not "Oklahoma" and "Baptist" are limiting its reach.  So we are not even interested in discussing a name change here.  It's less relevant, anyway, because we already have more of a regional and even national reach than HBU.

But it is a little sad to compare the differences in governance and administration between OBU and HBU in light of recent events.  With administrative leadership free of fundamentalists to appease and deliberate efforts to join the top tier of Christian colleges, HBU is on a dramatic upward trajectory.  OBU has made good on efforts to bolster enrollment and expand its programs and facilities, too.  But the recent personnel and policy mistakes have taken a toll not only on our reputation.  Appeasing fundamentalists consumes too much time and energy, and makes it impossible for OBU to move forward.  At present, it's all we can do to avoid moving backward.

Friday, April 27, 2012

"The Norm" -- One Year Later

Today is a pretty momentous day in the history of spirited defense of academic freedom, integrity, and rigor at OBU!  Exactly one year ago, a small group of concerned students created and circulated a publication called "The Norm."

As faculty, alumni, and retiree groups raised their voices in protest against the bad policy and personnel changes at OBU, each drew strength from the fact that students had courageously and passionately raised many of the same issues.  I can't speak for the whole alumni petition movement last fall, but I suspect that it might never have gotten off the ground if not for The Norm.

I can certainly say that Save OBU would not exist without The Norm, and here's why:  While it's clear that a lot of OBU constituents have been badly disaffected by the disastrous actions taken by administration since around 2010, there was initially very little appetite for looking at the big picture -- BGCO ownership and control.  Plenty of people are willing to stand up for academic freedom and protest the absolutely shameful treatment of two well-loved professors (whose professional accomplishments and Christian devotion are beyond question).  But the idea of independence from the BGCO is a leap that some -- even some friends concerned about fundamentalist encroachment -- have been unwilling to take.

The reasons are fair enough: "It's always been this way" is an idea that powerfully bolsters the inertia of the status quo.  Given the BGCO's unique ownership stranglehold, separation may not even be legally possible.  Faculty are generally free to stand up for their Handbook rights (they've restarted a long-defunct AAUP chapter in the wake of the administration's assault), but are not free to publicly argue for BGCO separation, so Save OBU has had to go along without them officially on board. Retirees depend on pensions and benefits, and there is sadly actually precedent in Southern Baptist life for stealing retiree benefits after a fundamentalist takeover.  (Who cares if a few aging liberals die prematurely, right?)

Rather than just complaining about one of the many OBU governance/administration issues gone awry, The Norm connected the dots and pointed to the conclusion that the norms of a true liberal arts university -- even a Baptist one -- are no longer in concert with the Baptist state convention due to that body's dramatic lurch toward fundamentalism over the past 20 years.

Thanks to their foresight and leadership, the protest they inaugurated is alive and growing one year later.  The Class of 2011 has been indispensable to Save OBU's efforts thus far.  We look forward to welcoming more friends from the Class of 2012, as well as underclassmen, to join us in standing for a stronger OBU.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Save OBU's Information Sources

Don't get too excited.  I'm not naming any of our sources.  We are not journalists and we certainly have an agenda, but we are absolutely committed to preserving the anonymity of anyone who requests it.  We are not looking for "dirt" on anyone -- all we care about is pushing back against fundamentalist encroachment -- but we certainly do appreciate the people who have taken time and some personal risk to share facts about OBU governance and administration so that we can provide that information to a wider audience.

Many readers and supporters have expressed thanks for the well-researched and well-documented blog posts.  We will continue to operate at a high standard of integrity.  Certainly there have been uncomfortable moments along the way.  I made a mistake in my second blog post back in December, inferring too much from an OBU press release about a faculty member.  Veronica exposed an embarrassing situation last month in a post that demonstrates the adverse consequences of administrators overruling faculty search committee recommendations, something that had unfortunately become quite common (though we are hopeful will not happen this year).

There are plenty of things we haven't reported.  Sometimes, we receive information that points to a conclusion that without multiple attestation could be inconclusive.  Other times, we receive information that we can't use because reporting it could compromise the identity of the source.  Still other times, we learn things that are true and perhaps interesting, but ultimately not very relevant to our cause.

We know based on readership statistics alone that we're having an impact.  But one frustrating thing is that our impact is difficult to quantify.  For example, we know that certain meetings have been held with trustee, administrative, and convention leaders.  But we don't know the extent to which "dealing" with Save OBU was on the agenda, or what the outcomes of those meetings were.  (Our perception is that, on Gandhi's "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win" model of nonviolent resistance, Whitlock and Norman are ignoring us and the BGCO is laughing at us.)  We know that President Whitlock had been scheduled to be in the Holy Land for a month this spring.  We would like to believe that pressure from the faculty, retirees, and Save OBU helped lead him to conclude that it would be unwise to be away from campus with so much active discontent, especially during the season when faculty openings are being filled, and that no one trusts Provost Norman to be left in charge of hiring.  But for all we know, Dr. Whitlock's trip may have been cancelled because not enough people signed up to go on the tour.  We just don't know.

With all that said, here are a few of our informational needs.  Now that our readership has grown substantially, maybe some of you can help.  Our email address is

Ancient History

  • The "Heresy Paper" controversy in '79-'80.
  • The Baptist Hospital System's disaffiliation from the BGCO in the early 1980s.  We're not interested in the controversy about sex change operations.  We need to know more about nuts and bolts of how and why a large affiliate ended its relationship with the convention.

Recent History

  • We have a good sketch of how the last OBU presidential search played out.  But we need to know more about how the convention (or its executive director) influenced that process.
  • We haven't reported on changes in the College of Fine Arts in the past few years.  We need to know more about how it came to be that a BGCO executive became dean.  We're also looking for more information about the theater department and the degree to which there has been unwanted administrative meddling in that area.

Current Events

  • Now that searches are being conducted for several faculty positions, we want to make sure that the committees' preferences are honored.  Knowing that this norm has been violated on multiple occasions in the recent past has been a tremendous help to our movement and has galvanized support.  We need to know what is going on in each case.  We don't care about the particulars of applicants (because we, unlike the administration, actually trust the faculty's judgment in choosing new colleagues).  We just want to know if there's been interference.
  • We're told that there has been widespread dissatisfaction with the bookstore and that the Faculty Council would be addressing that issue this spring.  But with all these other problems, we haven't been able to follow up.

If you know of someone who may have insight into any of these matters, please forward this blog to that person.  But again a reminder: please don't engage current OBU faculty about Save OBU.  They are not in a position to publicly support us and bringing up the issue will only create a difficult situation for them.  Don't worry, we are hearing from faculty from time to time as issues arise, and are assured that we have significant (though by no means unanimous -- we're not claiming that -- support from faculty).

Also, we have a few short-term research projects that basically involve Web searching.  If you can help out with one of those, let us know.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Future Bison?

On April 18 at 11:23 p.m. in Washington, D.C., my beautiful bride, Cara, gave birth to our fist child, a perfect baby girl named Amelia.  Though it's not relevant to Save OBU, please allow a point of personal privilege for a proud daddy:

Having started the Save OBU blog in the 5th month of Cara's pregnancy, I want to thank her for indulging my passion for helping protect OBU's heritage.  It's still not entirely clear to me why I've devoted so much time to this, but Cara has tolerated my activism with grace and good humor.  Most of the time.  My initial commitment of 6 weeks has stretched into the spring months, and I'd like to remain involved at least until we have an advisory committee in place and formally reach out to OBU trustees.

I also want to thank Veronica specifically for her fine series on Baptist freedoms that ran on the blog over the past six days, and generally for joining me as a Contributing Editor to the blog and providing so much leadership and vision for our movement.

On last fall's alumni petition, I stated rather dramatically and hyperbolically that I'd never let my child anywhere near OBU, given the current crackdown.  (I was the 216th signature.)  But since that time, I've grown nostalgic for Bison Hill.  I would love for my daughter to attend a small liberal arts college with a residential campus.  The truth is, there are a lot of people who no longer recommend OBU to young people in their spheres of influence.  I've received literally dozens of emails to this effect since Save OBU's inception.  Our association with the BGCO raises significant and legitimate doubts about OBU's commitment to academic freedom, integrity, and rigor.  The recent negative changes confirm the suspicions that a non-trivial number of OBU friends and alumni have had ever since the Takeover.  Already, we have OBU parents concerned that maybe their children should transfer.  At some Baptist colleges, students are transferring by the hundreds.  Other colleges are so obsessed with appeasing state convention fundamentalists that they no longer even pretend to be legitimate academic institutions, to the extent of throwing away their accreditation.

But setting aside the issue of transfers for a moment, think of how many bright and capable young students are not being encouraged to go to OBU.  This is a real shame, and the only way to change that dynamic is to make sure that OBU is a place where academic freedom and open inquiry thrive, not a place where they are actively eroded (at worst) or merely tolerated (at best).

Save OBU's argument -- that independence from the BGCO is the only necessary and sufficient safeguard against fundamentalist encroachment at OBU -- would be much easier if we were, like Shorter University, in the throes of an all-out assault.  But the truth is, while there are some aspects of OBU's management and governance we don't like, things have stabilized on Bison Hill after a year of widespread protests.  Our constant vigilance is what will deny BGCO elites of their long-elusive dream: remaking Oklahoma's only Baptist university in their own post-Takeover image.

If we succeed, OBU may once again be an attractive college option for my daughter, Amelia, and literally thousands of other young people.  Most of us had a fantastic experience at OBU.  But we can't in good conscience recommend OBU to our children, students, and friends if we harbor serious doubts about the experience they would have under the new regime.  Disillusioned friends and alumni represent a massive untapped reservoir of support, enthusiasm, and recruitment for OBU.  Since the Takeover, and especially in the past two years, trust has been broken.  I welcome any efforts by top OBU administrators to repent of their mistakes and begin the hard, slow work of repairing the broken relationship.  That laborious effort would bear fruit in time, and it is an honorable path to take.  But a wiser, quicker, more efficient, and, frankly, more authentically Baptist solution is to break free of BGCO control and be the rigorous yet faithful Christian liberal arts university we all knew and loved.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Baptist Freedoms and the University

So what can we say then? What does this foray into the historical Baptist values say about the current situation in Baptist higher ed?

First, Baptists have always been a people who believe deeply in freedom. It was our founding value-- and not just for ourselves. Baptists believe in freedom because they are convinced that God loves, values, and takes seriously, every single human being that God has ever created. God made us free and it is no person's job to decide to take that away.

Freedom is not something we love because we are American. Freedom is something we love because of who we are convinced that God is.

Second, this freedom comes with deep responsibility. Each person is free because each person is also accountable to God. Freedom and the value of the individual is something we must take with the utmost seriousness if we seek to be true to our roots and good Christians in general.

Finally, it has never been the Baptist way to demand conformity. Freedom leads naturally to diversity. This also is our inheritance. If we take our tradition seriously, then we must be ready to butt heads almost endlessly. There is no authority to which we may appeal to convince our sisters and brothers that they MUST agree with us.

Rather, we begin on the common ground of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and depart from there, each responsible to decide exactly what that means.

This is the kind of person a Baptist is.

And that brings me to a point which Jacob and I have both tried to emphasize from the beginning: the BGCO does not have a monopoly on what it means to be Baptist.

The SBC at large has forgotten the pluralism from which they were born. They have sold their birthright for the "safer" zone of ideological conformity. They have responded to political pressure with authoritarianism.

And what has that meant for their institutions of higher education?

It started with the six SBC seminaries, now shells of their former glory. Southwestern still has one of the largest theological libraries in the US. But if you want to teach there you must ascribe to a very narrow view of several political (and only peripherally theological) issues-- a requirement which has made it a shell of the great center of learning it once was. The rest are the same.

And Jacob showed us that for universities which have maintained ties with their conventions, it has meant refusal to follow rules about tenure and risky dealings with accreditation in the name of doctrinal purity.

But for Baptist universities who have broken ties with their conventions and refused to kowtow to the new authoritarian style of dictating what it means to be Baptist, there has been flourishing.

For OBU, our quality as an institution is dependent on the freedom which is so central to being Baptist. We must have freedom of inquiry and protected academic freedom-- and the diversity which comes when every individual is respected enough to form their own opinions and responsible to God for doing so. As Baptists, these are all things which must be taken seriously.

But the current pattern at OBU is one of disrespect, outright rejection of personnel policies which protect these freedoms, and increasing threat of narrowing the scope of orthodoxy on campus.

The question is whether or not we will take the hard step to remain true to our Baptist identity,  or we will follow the current trend of ideological conservatism aimed at ending our beloved diversity. The latter is indeed "safer" and "easier," but we must be willing to sell our birthright for nothing more than a bowl of soup.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Religious Freedom

Again, this freedom may have less to do directly with the academy, but it does help emphasize what kind of people Baptists are.

Various Christians have had various views about the relationship between church and state throughout Christian history, but Baptists have always been a people who have called for separation. In fact, the Baptist founders John Smyth and Thomas Helwys may have been the first to ever call for complete religious liberty for all-- Christian or not. Although at times, we seem to have forgotten these roots as we climb the ladder of political power, we are a people who believe in freedom for all.

This stance, again, comes from the Baptist view of the individual. All people are made free before God and as such are free and responsible for their own religious convictions. It is no one's place to coerce that decision.

After all, for much of their heritage, Baptists were asking for religious freedom as a right they did not have. But they did not ask only for themselves. In 1791, John Leland wrote on the subject,

"Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing."
Baptists have long been a people who empower other with rights and responsibilities, not simply tolerance. As we have long been people who know that Jesus is lord, and not Caesar,  faith is no matter for Caesar to decide, whether for us or against us.

Again, this may not be directly related to our situation at OBU. But it does continue to highlight what kind of people Baptists have been historically.

Baptists are the kind of people who believe that every person-- no matter what they look like, believe, act like, dress like, or think like, is made in the image of God. Every person is just as valuable in God's eyes as we ourselves are-- no matter how different they are from us. We have always petitioned not only for our own freedom, but also for the freedom of all people.

Baptists do not believe in toleration with preference towards some, but in equal rights for all. We need no government or any other body to defend our faith for us.

And above all, we are a people of radical freedom. We will not tolerate any person or institution trying to define for us what faith must mean.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Church Freedom

This post will, of course, have less to do with the academy than the two preceding, but this is also an important Baptist Freedom, so we will still give it an overview in the spirit of determining what kind of people Baptists are.

As I said in the last post on soul freedom, Baptists are individualistic, but that is not the whole story. These individuals are always individuals in community. When choosing to follow Jesus, we also choose to be a part of a community filled with others who have also chosen this path.

Baptists have always been a part of the free church tradition. This means a few things. The local congregation is autonomous. This church is a "gathered church" of those who have joined freely and voluntarily. This depends heavily on the concept of soul freedom-- as each person is both free and responsible to make their own faith decision, it is a decision of each person to be baptized and join the community.

But as Shurden says, this choice of faith should not be equated "with mere intellectual assent to doctrinal ideas... Baptists have been interested in far more than a nod of the head to a certain theology. Baptists want a personal commitment to the Jesus way of living."

Baptists emphasize the local church, but they do not fail to see the importance of the universal church, which encompasses all believers, not only Baptists. For Baptists, these Christians are just as much Christians as we are.

As a "statement of the equality of all believers in determining the mind of Christ," Baptist churches follow congregational government. This means that power is placed in the hands of all members instead of one person or a smaller group of people.

These autonomous churches are free to work together and organize together into conventions, but there is no institution which holds power over the local church.

Baptist churches are free to structure their worship in whatever way they see fit.

Along with freedom of each church comes the recognition of the priesthood of every believer. Baptist's have long affirmed that all ministry belongs to the laity because we are each priests of God's people.

Again, we see that Baptists are people who affirm giving every person the freedom and responsibility to control the most important part of their own lives. In this way, we should be people who affirm education-- allowing each person to become more fully human. We should be people who affirm the difference and importance of difference not only between Baptists but also between the various denominations of Christians.

Never has it been the place of the Baptist to be controlling or authoritarian. These are the kinds of political strangleholds which we must continue to resist.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Soul Freedom

"Soul Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government."

Called by many names throughout Baptist history, soul freedom is the affirmation of the infinite value of the individual to God. As Shurden says, "Soul freedom affirms the sacredness of individual choice."

Although their traditional emphasis on the church also shows that individualism is not the whole picture, Baptists are highly individualistic and have worn this sometimes-accusation as a badge of honor. The value of the individual comes from the theological affirmation that every person is created in the image of God, making every person of infinite dignity and worth.

This dignity means that each person is competent to answer for themselves before God-- and not only competent, but responsible to do so. Baptists have long affirmed that every person must make significant choices for themselves and answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?"

Baptists affirm the individual over the institutional, believing that access to God is direct for each person. This does not mean, of course, that any human is self-sufficient, but rather that, as Shurden says, "Grace is always individually appropriated...we are saved one by one, person by person, individual by individual." For Baptists, religion and conversion are based on a personal experience of God.

For Baptists, faith is voluntary. We cannot make someone believe, and we definitely cannot make someone love God.

The individuality of faith also proclaims that there is no one conversion story. As Shurden describes, "If faith is personal and individualistic, it will always manifest itself in different shapes and forms and styles." Baptists do not affirm five things one must believe to come to God or a specific path that one must take to God, but only that each person must make their own decision about Jesus.

Soul freedom is the reason behind the Baptist insistence on believer's baptism. One cannot be born into the church, but each person may make a public declaration of their belonging in the community after choosing to follow Christ.

So what does this valuing of individuals mean for the university?

The individual is the business of Baptists  as well as the business of higher education. Each affirms that every person has something to offer, a valuable piece of the picture of the image of God. And if each person is responsible for their own faith and understanding, then it is right to invest as much as we can in each individual in order to assist and prepare them in their decision making.

Baptists should be the first to empower their students and to take them seriously as people. Baptists should be the first to recognize each person's competence to make decisions about the most important things in life.

Baptists should be concerned with the educational investment which is becoming greater and greater for future students. Never again will students spend quite as much money and be shaped in their thinking and habits quite as much as they will in those four years. Thus, Baptists are an excellent choice to take seriously the task of shaping individuals to step up to the plate of human responsibility.

Yet, if Baptists continue down the slippery slope of creedalism, we will lose our distinctive value of the individual to the value of institutionalized ideas. We have already seen how recent changes in OBU and other SBC universities have diminished the capability of individuals to take responsibility for themselves. What decisions need to be made if others are telling me what actions I can and cannot take or what things I can or cannot believe?

It may be safer to control students, but as Baptists, we should take them seriously instead.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bible Freedom

Baptists did not write the bible.

No, indeed, we did not. We inherited it from the larger church and we still share it with them. And as such as the story goes, it would be irresponsible to claim we are the only ones who know what to do with it or what truth comes out of it.

As Shurden breaks it  down, Bible freedom means a few things:

Bible freedom means freedom under the Lordship of Christ.

Historically, Baptists have also affirmed the preeminence of Christ over the words on the page. However, in 2000 (post-takeover) the Baptist Faith and Message was changed from saying Jesus is the "criterion by which the bible is to be interpreted" to "all scripture is a testimony to Christ." This is a small change, except that many of the most political stances which come from the bible have been fought against with the claim-- well, Jesus never said anything about that. But, no longer! For Jesus is no longer the rule, but only the message. Now, we can remake Jesus into whatever message we find in the bible.

The 2000 BF&M also removed the clause on the authority of Jesus, "The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ"which is found in the 1963 version.

So there have been some interesting changes to make the current interpretation of the words of the Bible lord, instead of making Jesus lord. This was not the spirit of Bible freedom.

So now, the static words of the page have been exalted over the dynamic presence of Christ, restricting freedom of interpretation. That's why so many institutions which stay affiliated with their convention are going through a sort of doctrinal purging. No longer are we free to interpret, we are stuck in our old understandings and knowing exactly what the bible means already.

Bible freedom means freedom to obey the word.

Something we seem to have forgotten: the word of God is not the Bible. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. But God has certainly promised to speak through the Bible, and through the words on the page, the living and active Word of God may be heard.

That is not to say the Bible is unimportant. By no means. The scriptures testify to Christ, and as such, they are the sole authority for Baptists. (Although, for this idea we probably need to thank Luther more than any of our specific founding forerunners.)

But listen to what Shurden says about the founding Baptists and their understanding of the truth gleaned from the Bible:

"For Baptists, the Bible is and always has been the final authority... the Bible is final, but human understanding of the Bible is never final or complete or finished... Baptists did not begin and apparently did not intend to live out their faith as a static, rigidly fixed, inflexible group of disciples. They did not arrive at The truth in every area of life and then determine to pass it on to succeeding generations. What they arrived at was an attitude of openness to the ongoing study of the Bible..."
He goes on to quote from the 1963 BF&M which discusses a living faith rooted in Jesus who is ever the same. Thus, the authority is Jesus. "A living faith must experience a growing understanding of truth and must be continually interpreted and related to the needs of each new generation."

Yes! That is what Baptists were saying about themselves in 1963! Of course, that statement has been revised in the 2000 BF&M to say, "Our living faith is established on eternal truths," which sounds similar, but is just different enough to sound a lot more like, "We aren't wrong... for eternity."

Remaining true to Bible freedom not only allows, but encourages diversity. Yes, this is dangerous, but the alternative is to become stagnant and irrelevant unto death "resulting from unbending dogmatism." As Shurden says, "Built into [this approach] is the idea that our understandings of the Bible change... with this birthright of freedom and faithfulness... no Christian communion should be better able to meet the changing challenges of the contemporary world than Baptists."

Although recently Bible freedom has been hidden away under disguised creedalism, it is one of our most precious gifts and should be celebrated-- especially for those looking to prepare the leaders of tomorrow in a Liberal Arts University.

To be a people free to change and respond to the changes of life is to be the exact people of faith who can take seriously both faith and education. I do not need to fear the coming together of my faith and learning because my faith is flexible and will not break. I am free to respond to everything I learn, trusting that God is faithful. Perhaps this is what our founding Baptists had in mind in 1910 when they chose a University over a seminary for their little state.

Bible freedom means freedom from all other authorities.

Believe it or not, Baptists are non-creedal people. That does not mean they reject the ancient creeds of faith, but rather that no document (even the BF&M) is the norm for Baptist beliefs. Only the Bible can be that.

To be sure, Baptists have confessions. But those are expressions of what certain Baptists believed at a certain time. They are in no way normative for the whole of the Baptist church. Even the BF&M is actually titled, "A statement of the Baptist Faith and Message." It is only a statement--  not a creed. Even the 2000 BF&M says that it is not complete or infallible and Baptists should be free to revise it whenever it seems wise or expedient to do so. Further, the BF&M should not "hamper freedom of thought or investigation."

But what has happened? As Shurden puts it, the story usually goes like this. 1) Strong statement of aversion to any creed in favor of freedom. 2) A group arises which calls for strict orthodoxy. 3) This group issues a call for a statement to safeguard orthodoxy. 4) They call for the imposition of such a statement to guarantee orthodoxy. -- Now we are creedal.

This is exactly what happened at the SBC seminaries, post-takeover. Suddenly professors were required to sign documents detailing specific beliefs about gender and other peripheral matters. This is what is happening at Shorter with the lifestyle statement. This is what's happening at OBU with Dr. Norman's crazy ideological barrage of interview questions. It is NOT Baptist, it is fundamentalist.

Thus, if professors at any Baptist institution are asked to sign anything which is not the Bible itself, the institution is no longer acting Baptist.

Finally, Bible freedom means freedom of interpretation.

It is the right and responsibility of each individual to seek and find their own understanding of the Bible.

It does not mean anything goes. Rather it means that the Bible should be taken seriously and our best scholarship should be used to understand it.

It seems to me that a Baptist University is the best place to do that. There, we may seek to learn in order that we may better understand our Holy Book. We may disagree and discuss and come to varying conclusions, but that is the only way to take this most important document seriously.

So letting Dr. Norman, or Anthony Jordan, or the BGCO, or the BF&M, or any other authority interpret the Bible for us is not only against what it means to be educated, it is against what it means to be Baptist. The two ideals go hand in hand. Because we take seriously the rights and freedoms of each individual to come to this book with their own mind and conscience, we must educate them.

If we decide we already knows what it means, we are not only being bad students, we are being bad Baptists.

Sources: Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys Pub, 1993.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What Does it Mean to be Baptist?

This week we have looked at some of the other Baptist universities who have stayed with their conventions after the fundamentalist takeover. Some of these colleges are not much like OBU. Some of them are a little bit closer. And some of them may as well be OBU if a few things had gone differently.

But each gives us an interesting look at the same question. What does it mean to be a Baptist-- specifically with regards to higher ed?

For our friends at Shorter, they will be waiting until December to find out if their addition of a lifestyle statement to the requirements for continued employment there will ruin their accreditation visit from SACS. Because although it is their prerogative as a private institution to institute such a statement, it is a big no no in the world of higher ed accreditation to do anything which denies the value of tenure-- i.e. firing professors for refusing to sign even if they are tenured. It's estimated that one third of their faculty will leave before they sign.

Is that what it means to be a Baptist? Making sure that all of the people we associate with act a certain way, hold certain political views, and above all, not to take seriously the requirements of an institution for higher learning?

We have seen this week that that is certainly what it can mean to be a Baptist.

But something we here at Save OBU have said from the beginning is that the recently fundamentalist state conventions do not have the last word on what it means to be Baptist. And perhaps, in 1910, when our forerunners decided to build a co-ed, liberal arts university for their newly incorporated state instead of a seminary, it was because they knew that to be Baptist could mean a celebration of learning and truth seeking in all disciplines.

So this week, we say Baptists should be known for what they are for, not for what they are against.

I look forward to exploring each of the historic Baptist freedoms in turn and their implications on higher education. Perhaps we will see that the future is not so bleak after all.

There is another possibility for the future-- one for which Save OBU will continue to advocate before it is too late.

For those who are curious, I take number and outline of the four Baptist freedoms from Walter Shurden's book, The Baptist Identity. Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys Pub, 1993.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Downward Spiral: Save OBU's Vital Role

Over the past four days, we've looked at Baptist schools whose headlong descent into fundamentalism makes OBU's recent missteps seem minor by comparison.  Just as we began the Downward Spiral series with an optimistic note about things stabilizing at OBU, we want to end with an appropriate balance between acknowledging progress and sticking to our guns about the ultimate source of the tension -- the tenuous, mutually draining relationship between OBU and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

First, credit where credit is due: After nearly a year of protests, I absolutely believe that OBU President David Whitlock is in a position to do right by OBU.  The faculty and retirees' efforts, in particular, have let let him know the seriousness of dismissing two professors without providing Faculty Handbook rights to them.  He is now much more aware of the widespread displeasure with the orientation of OBU as a consequences of the several bad policies his administration has adopted.

More good news:  At least one academic department reports being able to move forward with two new hires, both their first choice.  Dr. Norman is not getting to play the Doctrinal Enforcer role he obviously envisioned for himself.  As long as he is constrained by appropriate pressure, he will not be able to do further harm.  Whether he will ever be able to repair broken trust and lost confidence is unknown.  But to the extent he is willing to try, we have to honor that effort.

So if we are ending a crisis-filled year on a tentatively hopeful note, why do we still need Save OBU?

Let's not forget the ugly facts of the matter: Two professors were unethically dismissed.  Several core curriculum areas have suffered.  Faculty search committee recommendations have been ignored and overruled.  Legitimate doubt exists about whether Whitlock and Norman want to be loyal to the BGCO's wishes or to the interests of students and faculty.  That doubt will exist as long as BGCO control does, but given the breach of trust, we need to be vigilant.

Faculty can only do so much.  Yes there was widespread anger, fear, and sadness in the wake of two ideologically-motivated firings.  But the faculty really can't continue to beat the administration over the head with this.  Mistakes were made.  OBU's reputation is suffering.  But the faculty have to move on, though they do not have to forget what has happened.  They have to move forward, engage other issues, and allow trust to be rebuilt if the administration repents and makes a genuine effort to uphold academic freedom and the Christian liberal arts tradition that made OBU great.

We may not be heading down the path of mass firings and a wholesale abandonment of everything we hold dear.  But we have to be prepared for things to get ugly.  While we stand in solidarity with the Save Our Shorter coalition, we are well aware of the dangers inherent in waiting until after another major defilement of academic freedom or our cherished Baptist principles before we get organized and stand up for what we believe is right.

Unfortunately, the past two years have made it abundantly clear that OBU needs a watchdog that brings together the interests and perspectives of students (current and prospective), parents, alumni, faculty, and Oklahoma Baptists.  Just because OBU's takeover is in its infancy while at other Baptist schools it is complete does not mean that we could never go down that road.  We welcome any progress, but we remain absolutely convinced that ending BGCO control is the only necessary and sufficient condition for eliminating threats to academic freedom, integrity, and respectability on Bison Hill.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Downward Spiral: Fundamentalists Go Nuclear at Shorter University

In this Downward Spiral series, we're looking closely at other state convention-controlled Baptist colleges that are abandoning their historic legacies as liberal arts colleges and bowing to fundamentalist demands that they prize rigid doctrinal purity above academic freedom, integrity, and respectability.

We began by claiming a victory of sorts, noting that OBU's recent slide may have abated somewhat due to the widespread concern students, faculty, alumni, retired faculty, and the Save OBU movement have expressed over the past 10-12 months.  Then, we looked at Truett-McConnell and Brewton-Parker, both in Georgia, which seem to be in a race to the bottom and a competition to see who can convince the fundamentalists who control the Georgia Baptist Convention that their school has the most ridiculous obsession with total doctrinal conformity and the greatest disdain for actually providing a decent, let alone rigorous, education.  A little closer to home, Louisiana College provides a clear warning about what can happen when Baptist schools unsuccessfully resist fundamentalist takeovers.  Having suffered from financial disasters, divisive battles, horrible leadership, LC is in perilous danger of losing its accreditation. Any OBU constituent who thinks "it could never happen here" needs to take a close look at how convention power brokers interfered in LC trusteeship and administration and ran a once-fine institution into the ground.  LC is not an extreme case.  Rather, it's an ugly picture of what would almost certainly happen to OBU if Provost Norman and Dr Jordan continue to get their way in OBU's governance and affairs.

But let us now turn our attention to a top Baptist college whose supporters have been most gracious and sympathetic to Save OBU -- a favor I would now like for us to return.

Shorter University (Rome, GA)
Whereas Brewton-Parker and Truett-McConnell were never among the top Southern Baptist-affiliated colleges, Shorter University has been a shining example of Christian higher education in the evangelical tradition.  Once the GBC and Mercer University parted ways (a huge boon to both entities and a brilliant idea that I hope will continue to spread throughout post-Takeover Baptist life), Shorter became the GBC's flagship institution.  Like OBU, Shorter specialized in the liberal arts experience.  Graduates went on to success in business, ministry, and other fields.  The school had excellent placement in law, medicine, and other graduate degree programs.  Shorter had first-rate nursing and teacher education programs.  The fine arts department improved not only worship arts in the churches, but also the cultural life of Northwest Georgia.  Of the schools we've studied in this series, Shorter has the most obvious parallels to OBU.  For what its worth, Shorter receives about $2 million per year from the GBC.

What Happened?
We've reported on goings-on at Shorter before.  In fact, I wrote about Shorter in the very first week of Save OBU's existence.  Like some of the other schools we've profiled, Shorter's president started on the authoritarian/fundamentalist warpath almost from the first moment of his election.  I can't speak to the GBC's meddling in Shorter's affairs over the years, though I'm absolutely certain that the fundamentalist takeover of Shorter University has been brewing for years at the GBC and trustee levels.  We'll fill in some of those gaps over time.  President Donald V. Dowless announced soon after taking office that all employees (not just faculty) would have to sign a "lifestyle statement" or be fired.

Whereas such tactics are not really news at already-fundamentalist institutions like Brewton-Parker and Truett-McConnell, this dramatic and unprecedented affront against Baptist freedoms was a big deal at Shorter, which, though thoroughly conservative by any objective measure, has generally respected basic norms of academic and administrative responsibility.

Our friends at Save Our Shorter have kindly answered some questions we asked about the situation:
a) Did this directive from from the GBC or Dowless himself? 
We're not clear on that. We suspect that he had been in contact with Nelson Price, then-chair of the Board of Trustees, who is taking his marching orders from Bob White at the GBC. Bob White’s seeming silence on the current issues stems from the fact that he had written and discussed with pro-GBC trustees, directing them on their responses to the GBC/Shorter lawsuit in 2002. That was brought out in court, however White denied it, and when trustees were questioned, they also denied it.  That incident seems to have shaken White enough to teach him to be more surreptitious in his manipulations. 
b) What has the opposition been like? 
Great outcry in the community. Faculty are incensed but scared. Alumni have tried to have a discussion with Dowless, but he first took an intransigent position, then refused to talk to alumni or community clergy. Of course, there is also the creation of SOS (Save Our Shorter) and the building support of that group. 
c) How many professors are leaving? 
[SOS has what it believes is an accurate count, but asked us not to publish the exact number.]  Suffice it to say that no area of the university is unscathed by this disaster: professors, administrators, IT staff, library staff, coaches... Nursing department is gone, with the exception of one professor who agreed to stay and teach out those students whom the department had recruited. 
d) How does this radical policy affect Shorter today and in the future? 
This is not just an issue about faculty. The lifestyle statement affects virtually every department on campus. Short term, Shorter is facing two challenges, administratively – re-staffing and finding faculty.  They have also had to extend open registration to the end of semester because so many students have not enrolled for classes next fall. Alumni are advising family members and friends not to send their children to Shorter. The Fine Arts department has been decimated. The Shorter Chorale has always been one of the crown jewels of Shorter. Only a handful of students and faculty are remaining. The theatre department, too, has lost the vast majority of its faculty and students.  One of the cultural centers for Rome will have virtually disappeared.
Clearly, Shorter has an unmitigated disaster on its hands.  To make matters worse, Shorter is hosting a visit from SACS (accrediting body) this week.  It's going to be very difficult to convince the SACS delegation that all is well at Shorter.  Thankfully, pro-Shorter advocates are planning a massive demonstration tomorrow morning.  The pro-GBC faction will have to answer tough questions about their bizarre new vision for the college.


What Can We Learn?
The Shorter debacle is obviously a worst-case, nightmare scenario.  But let's not forget that there are very influential people in OBU life who would love to see this disaster visited upon OBU.  Why fire moderates once every year or two when you can induce a few dozen of them to quit all at once?!

The convention's involvement is crucial, yet deliberately kept out of the public eye.  We don't know for sure if Bob White at the GBC is pushing this issue (though he is obviously cheerleading it from the sidelines).  In the same way, we don't yet know definitively what marching orders the BGCO has given  President Whitlock.  Like all Baptist college presidents trapped in the impossible, irreconcilable gap between an increasingly fundamentalist state convention (with its dwindling financial subsidy) and a university community that depends on academic freedom, liberty of the conscience, and open inquiry as core principles.

One difference between OBU and Shorter is that our current Board of Trustees would never go along with forcing OBU staff to choose between their jobs and their consciences.  (I say this with confidence,  but please correct me if my confidence is misplaced.)  That's why we will be formally reaching out to OBU trustees in the coming months.  They have been asked to believe blatant falsehoods about the forced dismissals (that they were merely "contractual disputes") and have not been provided with adequate context for the series of missteps that amount to an unprecedented change in direction on Bison Hill.  But even if, as we suspect, a year's worth of protests have temporarily slowed OBU's slow yet deliberate transformation away from a relatively moderate liberal arts college in the best of the Baptist tradition, it will only be a matter of time until the Takeover proceeds apace.  For now, we have a number of pro-OBU trustees.  But the convention will be much more careful about who it lets onto the Board in the future.  In a matter of a few years, all but a handful could be handpicked pro-BGCO Anthony Jordan loyalists.  At that point, they could wreak untold havoc.

As we've stated all along, the ultimate resolution is for the colleges and the conventions to go their separate ways.  Short of that, we are going to keep fighting these tired, old battles.  At Shorter, the fundamentalists have gone nuclear.  No collateral damage -- including dozens of employees' careers and hundreds of students' college experiences -- is too great for these people.  They have no place in the field of higher education, Christian or otherwise.  But they hold all the power.  For us little people who do not control the flow of funds and the election of trustees, it will take all the unity, solidarity, effort, and protest we can muster just to keep our hallowed traditions and values alive.

God help us all.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Downward Spiral: Louisiana College Forcibly Taken Over

This series began with a victory for academic freedom at OBU.  Though this should go without saying, we now project that OBU will not carry out any ideologically-motivated dismissals this summer.  In addition, we are hopeful that the faculty will be able to fill vacancies in the usual manner, rather than having a Stan Norman-led doctrinal inquisition designed to bring more fundamentalists to OBU.

As it turns out, this is no small feat.  We need only look at other SBC-related colleges where fundamentalists wield even more control to see how bad things can get.  On Saturday, we examined the case of Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, which recently purged all faculty who did not agree with every word of the Baptist Faith and Message (edited in 2000 to be explicitly sexist and to remove Christ as the lens through which the Bible should be interpreted).  The Georgia Baptist Convention now boasts on its website that TMC has eroded academic freedom (not to mention Baptist freedoms like liberty of the conscience and soul competency).

Not to be outdone, Brewton-Parker College (also in Georgia) no longer even pretends to be a legitimate academic institution.  Even in the face of devastating financial problems and likely loss of accreditation, BPC has elevated adherence to fundamentalist doctrines over responsibility to students and faculty.

We'll return to Georgia tomorrow.  But first let us consider the case of Louisiana College in Pineville, LA -- yet another state convention-run college whose descent into fundamentalism and irrelevance is much more advanced than OBU's.

Louisiana College
LC is a little closer to OBU geographically, with more OBU faculty and administrators having cycled through LC over the years than any of the Georgia Baptist institutions.  Like Oklahoma, Georgia, and every state except Texas and Virginia, fundamentalists have taken control of the Louisiana Baptist Convention over the past 20 years.  LC was doing quite well under the presidential leadership of former OBU Interim President Robert G. Lynn.  But things have deteriorated badly.  We've already profiled Louisiana College in a blog post about the specter of schools choosing adherence to fundamentalist policies even when it may eventually lead to loss of accreditation.

In spite of having its application for reaccreditation rejected and being placed on warning by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, LC has buried its head in the sand, waging bizarre political and cultural battles rather than making sure the school does not lose its accreditation.  LC has found time to cozy up to political activists within and beyond Baptist life, as well as sue the federal government over a requirement that certain religious schools offer contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans.  Right now, LC is basking in the glow of a favorable court ruling that it can be as fundamentalist as it wants.  (Just because you can does not mean you should.)

In addition to massive physical plant and financial problems, LC has had a great deal of trouble attracting and retaining quality faculty and administrators.  Even one avowedly conservative professor has said that LC has gone off the reservation.

Yet, in spite of the specter of losing its accreditation, it is difficult to find any evidence at all that Louisiana College cares anything at all about academic freedom, integrity, or respectability.

Louisiana College clearly belongs in our Downward Spiral series.  As with the Georgia schools, OBU is in much better shape than LC.  But just as we are tempted to say "This could never happen here," there was a time when Southern Baptists in Louisiana and elsewhere never would have believed this coud happen at LC.  Yet here we are.  This is the byproduct of a runaway fundamentalist state convention, trustees who care more about convention politics than the school's interest, administrators who badly overstep their bounds (sadly, that part is familiar to OBU), and students, faculty, and alumni who wait just a little too long to unite and raise their voices in protest.  Let's learn from these disastrous situations and make sure we stand ready to defend academic freedom, integrity, and respectability against encroachment from the convention and administrators tempted to take our school over the cliff in order to stay in the convention's good graces.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Downward Spiral: Brewton-Parker College - A Race to the Bottom in GA

When I conceived of this series, I planned to focus on three colleges that are spiraling downward as a result of fundamentalist takeovers: Truett-McConnell College (yesterday's post), Louisiana College (tomorrow's post), and Shorter University (forthcoming Tuesday).  But in examining the deteriorating state of Baptist "higher education" in Georgia, I came across yet another tale of woe: Brewton-Parker College.

I hesitate to even tell B-P's story because it's really not OBU's peer in any meaningful way.  But it sure helps to illustrate how grateful we should be that the BGCO only has one college, rather than three (like Georgia) that are constantly working out-crazy the others.

Brewton-Parker began as a Baptist institute in an under-served, rural part of the state.  It became a junior college and eventually was able to award bachelor's degrees.  For a combination of reasons, not least of which were the proliferation of public community colleges and the strength of other Baptist colleges in Georgia, Brewton-Parker has struggled over the years.

In the 1990s, a scandal involving the misappropriation of federal student aid caused serious damage to the school's reputation and financial standing.  After a series of less-than-competent administrators, Truett-McConnell loaned Brewton-Parker one of their own, Rev. Dr. Mike Simoneaux, who had been interim president of TMC before Emir Caner arrived.  Talk about a labor of love.  B-PC has had serious financial, management, enrollment, and academic problems for many years.  In 2009, citing a bad economy, the college restructured and dramatically scaled back its academic offerings.

Not content to struggle only with financial and organizational challenges, B-PC quickly joined the fundamentalist fray and joined its sister schools Truett-McConnell and Shorter in a race to the bottom.  And, as bad as things are at TMC and Shorter, it looks like B-PC is actually going to win and be the first of the three downward-spiraling GBC-affiliated colleges to close its doors for good.

It's unclear to me whether B-PC's jabs at TMC and Shorter are supposed to convince the GBC to dump even more money down this pit or whether they actually thought they could attract quality students and faculty by being avowedly fundamentalist, but as this April 2010 press clipping shows, B-PC's posture has been pretty bizarre:

The trustees responded to the challenge by voting unanimously on a number of significant issues including four action items that clearly define Brewton-Parker as a Baptist, Christian institution of higher education.
The first action item pertained to a resolution on the college’s Mission Centered Curriculum. Shep Johnson, BPC trustee and pastor of First Baptist Church in Douglas, presented the resolution and explained that the faculty has thoughtfully and strategically looked at each course taught at the school to see how it can be taught from a Christian worldview.

Gerald Harris/Index
Tony Romans, BPC trustee and pastor of North Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta, delivers a devotional message to the college’s Board of Trustees.
BPC President David Smith explained that the Christian worldview is to be infused into all of the courses taught at Brewton-Parker and that the purpose of the resolution is to tie each course to that same Christian worldview.
The second action item unanimously adopted by the trustees underscored a Statement of Faith and Learning. The central confession of the statement reads: “As a Georgia Baptist institution of higher learning, Brewton-Parker College is firmly and unequivocally rooted in the Christian faith, adopting the central confession for its statement of faith and learning from the New Testament – ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ (Rom. 10:9).
“As a consequence, to say that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ is to nurture a learning environment in which academic challenge, authentic spirituality, and the practice of integrity can flourish.”
The third action item heartily approved by the trustees pertained to a statement of Doctrine and Theology including the following words: “Brewton-Parker College focuses its Christian mission on the twin concepts of providing an unapologetically Christian and proudly Baptist tradition of higher education. In matters of theology and doctrine, Brewton-Parker College’s administration and trustees endorse the tenets of faith generally accepted by Southern Baptists and specifically expressed in The Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination’s doctrinal statement approved by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1963 and revised in 2000.”
The fourth action item focused on a resolution of Support for the Cooperative Program. The resolution stated: “The trustees of Brewton-Parker College affirm their historic commitment to the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention. They endorse the continuation of the Cooperative Program as the primary funding mechanism for mission ministries within the Georgia Baptist Convention. The Brewton-Parker College Board of Trustees appreciates the tireless efforts of GBC Executive Director Dr. J. Robert White in advocating for the Cooperative Program, and stand with him in affirming the Cooperative Program’s dynamic success in Georgia Baptist ministries.”

Gerald Harris/Index
Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy Jerry Ray, left, presents the framed documents of the resolutions that define Brewton-Parker as a Baptist, Christian institution of higher education to board chairman Cliff Morris, pastor of First Baptist Dublin. Morris accepted the presentation on behalf of J. Robert White, Georgia Baptist Convention executive director.
When President Smith addressed the trustees later he stated, “Since 1998, the GBC has provided Brewton-Parker, through scholarships, grants, direct monthly stipends, and other subsidies a total of $18 million.”
The trustees enthusiastically adopted all four action items to boldly herald the college as being “unapologetically Christian and proudly Baptist.”
Smith stated, “Some years ago the vocalist of a country and western hit sang, ‘I was country before country was cool.’ Well, Brewton-Parker College was thoroughly Baptist before being Baptist was cool in GBC higher education.
“When our sister institution’s president in Macon was writing books proclaiming a Universalist theology, BPC was purging its Bible department of CBF influence.
“When our sister institution in Rome was building strategies to disassociate with the GBC, BPC stood steadfastly in the camp of Georgia Baptists.
“When our sister institution in Cleveland was unsure of its denominational affections in the early days of this century and experienced difficult financial times,” Smith continued, “BPC offered to bring some of its programs to Cleveland to assist that institution by allowing students to remain on that campus, paying room and board and remaining there until they could accredit similar programs to serve their students.”
Smith also stated, “Our two sister colleges in Rome and Cleveland have made great strides recently to become what the Georgia Baptist Convention expects them to be. I am grateful that they are now moving toward a place where Brewton-Parker College has traditionally posted itself.”
Smith concluded his remarks by declaring, “Our faculty has unanimously affirmed a statement of faith and learning that:

Gerald Harris/Index
Left to right, First Baptist Centerville pastor Allen Hughes, BPC provost Ron Melton, Macon architect Jimmy Michael, and board chairman Cliff Morris have a moment for fellowship during a break at the BPC trustee meeting.
Stands on an inerrant, infallible, and inspired Bible, knows God as triune and omnipotent;
Understands humankind as fallen sinners, but created in the likeness and image of God;
Accepts Christ as virgin born, with divine Sonship, who accepted crucifixion for sinners, rose from the grave for the salvation of sinners, and will return to accept into eternity redeemed sinners;
Understands salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, and that through faith, provided by His grace, resulting in good works;
Recognizes that there is no other way to God or eternal life except through Jesus Christ;
And realizes that all humans are eternal in ultimate form, either residing with Christ in heaven or apart from Him in hell, forever.
We believe these statements, synthesized and framed as reminders of our commitment to God’s Kingdom and our denomination, go far beyond a one-time assignation of allegiance. We offer them as a way of life, a philosophy of teaching and as evidence of a college so thoroughly integrated into the twin realities of educational enlightenment and Christian edification that we are indeed, unapologetically Christian and proudly Baptist.”

The GBC gives about $4 million to its colleges annually (160% of what the BGCO gives OBU).  Shorter gets about half, while the others get about $1M apiece.  While poor little B-PC was trying to keep up with its larger, stronger sister schools in the race to be the most outrageously fundamentalist (TMC requires all faculty to sign the Baptist Faith and Message and Shorter is requiring all staff to sign a "lifestyle statement,") it turns out that Brewton-Parker ran afoul of its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.  Uh-oh.

I don't want to confuse correlation with causality here, but Brewton-Parker is in perilous danger of becoming an unaccredited degree mill.  Far from bailing it out further, at that point the Georgia Baptist Convention will probably just walk away.

What a disaster.

Praise the Lord, there are no meaningful parallels between OBU and BP-C.  That's why I initially planned to limit the Downward Spiral series to relevant peer institutions.  But even though OBU will likely never suffer the fate of Brewton-Parker College, this should be a clear warning to fledgling schools that mistakenly believe that the race to the bottom is a journey they want to undertake.  If you want to be thoroughly fundamentalist, it makes no sense to masquerade as a legitimate academic institution.  There are no winners in a race to Crazy Town.